Political Battles in Tunisia Shade Attacks on U.S. Embassy

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Fethi Belaid / AFP / Getty Images

Tunisian protesters attack the U.S. embassy in Tunis on Sept. 14, 2012

As hundreds of people swarmed the U.S. embassy in Tunis last Friday afternoon, the phone rang in the office of the country’s President, Moncef Marzouki. It was Hillary Clinton, pleading with him to help secure the American compound, just up the hill from his sprawling seaside palace. So Marzouki played a risky political card: he dispatched his presidential guards to the embassy, effectively muscling in on the country’s military and police forces — a show of strength in an intense power struggle between secular Tunisians like himself and the Islamic party that dominates the government. “We were really scared about the possibility that something like what happened in Benghazi would happen in Tunis,” Marzouki’s spokesman Adnen Mansar told TIME on Saturday, referring to last Tuesday’s calamitous siege of the U.S. consulate in that Libyan city in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. “We sent hundreds of our presidential guards with a lot of arms,” said Mansar, recalling Clinton’s two calls on Friday. “Half the arrests were made by our guards, whose job is only to protect the President and his staff.”

While U.S. officials are reeling from the assault on American embassies in cities as disparate as Tunis and Jakarta, one factor has proved beyond the control of Washington: other nations’ domestic political battles. The spark in many of last week’s riots might have been an obscure online film out of California, but in most cases, the fuel has been pooling up for months, ready to ignite. And the movie provided the perfect foil for those tensions, many of which erupted in the backwash of the old dictatorships.

(PHOTOS: Protests Rage in Middle East, Sparked by Mysterious Anti-Islamic Film)

Take Tunisia. For Washington, the country’s Jasmine Revolution presented the storybook tale of the Arab Spring: peaceful demonstrators who stormed the streets and drove out dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 after 24 years in power. Last October, the country’s first democratic elections resulted in a power-sharing agreement between the Islamist Ennahda party, which controls the legislature, and its two secular rivals, one of which controls the presidency, and the other the Prime Minister’s office. In celebration, the U.S. helped sponsor the U.N.’s World Press Freedom Day in Tunis last May with a huge three-day gathering, to which several U.S. State Department officials traveled to meet with journalists and politicians, hailing their new democracy.

Yet the reality on the ground has been far muddier. On Friday, three protesters died in clashes with security forces and dozens of cars were torched as enraged militants breached the U.S. embassy’s outer walls and hung the black flag of militant Islam, then ransacked parts of the American school across the street. When Clinton called Marzouki that evening, he assured her the upheaval had been brought under control.

But for how long? In the aftermath, there are questions about why Friday’s clashes occurred at all. Mansar said the U.S. embassy had not been entirely cordoned off, despite days of attacks on U.S. facilities in the region, including the disastrous deaths in neighboring Libya. The U.S. embassy in Tunis, a modern fortress-like building, sits on the main road linking the capital to suburban Carthage. Yet since the government categorized the planned protest as an assemblée, or gathering, the organizers did not require an official permit to march on the embassy. With weak coordination between the various branches of Tunisia’s security forces, the stage seemed set for trouble.

(MORE: What We Can Learn from the Attacks on U.S. Embassies)

While the violence shook many Americans, to some Tunisians it was all too predictable. “This has been in the offing for a while,” said Mounir Khelifa, an English professor at the University of Tunis who also oversees a U.S. study-abroad program there. He added that he and others had been struck by the sight of the elite presidential guards in action on the streets — unprecedented in Tunis. “The Salafists have been dynamic and aggressive in the past six or seven months. Whenever they believe that the religion has been offended, they intervene,” Khelifa told TIME. “So far, the government has been very lenient on them.”

Indeed, the very day that U.S. officials flew to Tunis last May to celebrate press freedom, a court convicted Nabil Karoui, head of the popular entertainment network Nessma TV, for offending Islam by airing the French animated movie Persepolis, which depicts the Prophet Muhammad. When I visited Fathi Layouni, one of the lawyers who brought the case against Karoui, in his downtown office, he rejected U.S.-style freedom of speech. “Madame,” he said angrily, “the definition of liberty is very different in Islamic countries than in the West.” In May, Layouni told me: “It’s true that after the revolution we’re trying to install a new society. But that does not mean that anyone can say anything they like.”

Layouni is hardly alone in his thinking. In June, groups of Salafists, the purist Islamist believers, smashed their way into an art gallery in the upscale La Marsa neighborhood — a kind of Tunisian Malibu — and destroyed paintings they deemed offensive to the Prophet Muhammad. Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, brushed off the threat of Islamist violence, saying that “with time, such extremism will vanish.” And Tunisian Minister of Religious Affairs Nourredine Khadmi told reporters that he advocated criminalizing anti-Islamic expression.

(VIDEO: Why They Protest: Bahrain, Tunisia and Yemen)

That idea of criminalizing alleged blasphemy is one of the most heated battles in Tunisia these days. The committee writing the new constitution, which is due next month, is deadlocked over a proposal to outlaw expressions deemed offensive to Islam. It is an idea that many Tunisians support but that secular politicians like Marzouki abhor. In an interview in his palace in May, the President told me he believed that the conviction of Karoui was senseless and bad for the image of Tunisia, whose economy depends heavily on beach-loving Western tourists.

But in the ongoing battle for primacy, Ghannouchi and his conservative supporters have repeatedly sidelined the President. In late June, security forces squirreled Al-Mahmoudi Ali al-Baghdadi, Libya’s former Prime Minister, out of a Tunisian jail cell and onto a plane bound for Libya — all against the wishes of Marzouki, who was asleep in his palace at the time.

With signs the Jasmine Revolution might have tinges of a fresh autocracy, youths who braved police fire in late 2010, and inspired the entire Arab Spring, say they are prepared to revolt again if they have to. “We will never, ever let our revolution be lost,” one woman told me last May when the U.S. embassy invited me to address young Tunisians at the American Corner, an embassy-supported library and meeting place in Tunis. “We will go into the streets again. We always have the street,” she said, her friends nodding in agreement. Next time, though, they might confront not just the security forces but conservative Islamists too.

MORE: Tunisia’s Dictator Is Out, but What’s Left Behind?

24 comments
Mounir Ben
Mounir Ben

First, in the name of all Tunisian people , I would like to aplogize for what happened. 

What happened  is against our religion and customs and I’m strongly condemning what happened in our country ,really what happened is a shame for Tunisia.

Those who participated in thie attack of the US Emabssy , are a minority and in any case they do not represent the peaceful people of Tunisia who is against all kinds of violence.

Bill Pearlman
Bill Pearlman

Moslems don't need an excuse to riot, kill, and bomb. It's what they do, it's who they are

Taieb Azaiez
Taieb Azaiez

we  learned  from  the  Professional   remember what  you  have  done  to  the   native  american  to  the  slaves    and     in  veietnam    in  the  american  news  my  freind   thousand  people  get  killed  by  guns  every  year  believe  me  I know  you're country better than  you  do  fiften years   of  my  life  in  washington   DC 

and  as much   i  love  my  town  and  my  fellows american  as  much  I  hate  you're diplomacy  and  the state  departement but  we  have  to  accept  the  truth  american  citezen is  the  last  worry  for  a  goverment  hired    by   IPEC WITH  ALL MY  RESPECT  

Iness Bach Chaouch
Iness Bach Chaouch

Dear Lucia,

your civilized country has made wars all over the world. You send your bombs to kill the children in Irak, and Afghanistan under the pretext of supporting democracy.Now your civilized country is trying to make chaos in North Africa. Tunisia will never be a part of this dirty game. 

docteur28
docteur28

 In the  US  surely  you are  not  as  free  as  alot of  people 

think...the last  example  ,look what  happened today  Monday 17  in 

lower  Manhattan...over  170 people  were  detained  just  because  are 

challenging  the  system ....Say  anything  against  jews  in  public  and  you  will see  what  will  happen  to  you...Free 

only  to work  and eat  if  you  have  little  time  to  question the 

gov  then all eyes  will  be  on  you  and  eventually  you  will be 

restrained  in  away  or  another...Foolish  who  believes  americans 

are  free.

docteur28
docteur28

 In the  US  surely  you are  not  as  free  as  alot of  people 

think...the last  example  ,look what  happened today  Monday 17  in 

lower  Manhattan...over  170 people  were  detained  just  because  are 

challenging  the  system ....Say  anything  against  jews  in  public  and  you  will see  what  will  happen  to  you...Free 

only  to work  and eat  if  you  have  little  time  to  question the 

gov  then all eyes  will  be  on  you  and  eventually  you  will be 

restrained  in  away  or  another...Foolish  who  believes  americans 

are  free.

docteur28
docteur28

In the  US  surely  you are  not  as  free  as  alot of  people  think...the last  example  ,look what  happened today  Monday 17  in  lower  Manhattan...over  170 people  were  detained  just  because  are  challenging  the  system ....Say  anything  against  jews  in  public  and  you  will see  what  will  happen  to  you...Free  only  to work  and eat  if  you  have  little  time  to  question the  gov  then all eyes  will  be  on  you  and  eventually  you  will be  restrained  in  away  or  another...Foolish  who  believes  americans  are  free.

Taieb Azaiez
Taieb Azaiez

BILL PILLERMAN   I can  can  tell ho  you  are  from  youre  name  stop   hate  to  others so  you can live  and  travel   with  you're  own  passeport  like  me  I  don't  need  to  use  american  passeport   learn  to  love  

docteur28
docteur28

 I  live  comfortably  and  I Traveled the  world   many times ,met  all  kind  of  people  from over 100  countries..lived on 4  continents ..You  eye  glasses are  little  different  than  mine.

Myriem Derouiche
Myriem Derouiche

@facebook-100003264870238:disqus  

what you are saying is pure barbarism , total ignorance and bewilderment !! when you talk about Muslims and Islam talk properly , and select your words or shut your mouth !! you are such an empty-headed , don't insult others if your ignorance prevents you from respecting their religious beliefs !!! 

Let your hatred and bitter feelings kill no one but you !! shame On you .

Myriem Derouiche
Myriem Derouiche

@lucia :what you are saying is pure barbarism , total ignorance and bewilderment !! when you talk about Muslims and Islam talk properly , and select your words or shut your mouth !! you are such an empty-headed , don't insult others if your ignorance prevents you from respecting their religious beliefs !!! Let your hatred and bitter feelings kill no one but you !! shame On you !

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

I haven’t seen the movie, nor am I likely to waste my time looking to find it. Judging from what I hear, YouTube has an uncontested legal right to show it – but also moral obligation to take it down. Just as it doesn’t entertain hard core pornography videos. Decency, not freedom of expression, is the criterion here. Mongering hate is worse than selling porn. Still, as despicable as this film is, it does not explicitly incite people to attack Muslims bodily or even financially. Aggressive anti-Jewish defamation is aired daily on many Arab TV stations, the only circumstances when free expression is honored and defended by the same dictators who demand apology from the US president! What’s wrong with them?

You can’t blame Islamic teaching per se, as aggressive righteousness is inherent in every religion that claims absolute and exclusive ownership of The Truth. Only that the Jews learnt (two millennia ago) to subdue their fundamentalism and accept the fact that might is not necessarily with the right. And the Christians, even while killing millions in the name of Jesus, managed to reflect from time to time upon his teaching, that the meek shall inherit the world. No similar insight penetrated the Islam to replace the spirit of conquest with acceptance of diversity. Not even at the heydays when Muslim empires were the cornerstones of Western civilization.  Unable to adapt culturally to defeat and reversal of fortunes, the decay of the Arab empires begot hate, jealousy, rejection of modern concepts and liberal tolerances. This rotten residue is still simmering in the Middle-East. And with up to date communication technology it is so easy to set fire to this decaying heap of garbage.

Mysterious_81
Mysterious_81

Making a film amp; ridiculing whole of the Muslim world is just another deliberate act of the Jews  prior to the election!Everyone knows how Muslims are sophisticated about their religion and Prophet.It just another attempt from the Jews to embarrass President Obama before the American as they can't afford him one more term in the white house.

RobertSF
RobertSF

These types of "power sharing" agreements don't work. You can share power, but you can't divvy up the various government functions. The government needs to act as one. 

Imagine if in our case, the Republicans controlled the Air Force and the Democrats controlled the Army. That's not democracy. That's warlord-ism.

Safouen Rabah
Safouen Rabah

There is an error in your presentation of the facts around power-sharing: "Last October, the country’s first democratic elections resulted in a power-sharing agreement between the Islamist Ennahda Party, which controls the legislature, and its two secular rivals, one of which controls the presidency, and the other the Prime Minister’s office."

In fact, Ennahdha -the Islamist party- controls both the legislature and the Prime Minster's office. As it does most ministries.

Marzouki from CPR Party has the presidency while Ben Jaafar from Takattol Party is President of the National Constitutional Assembly (ANC as it is referred to in Tunisia, by its French acronym), the parliament running the country. 

It is also a fact that Marzouki has been stripped of most the Presidency's power as part of the Troika negotiations to share power. Tunisia has been in a de-facto parliamentary system since October 23, 2011. Ben Jaafar, has even less powers and for the most part, plays the role of a figure head in the assembly.  

Thanks. 

Lucia Matias
Lucia Matias

The lesson to be learned: The Western world, the civilized countries should move away from these fundamentalist barbarians. 

Ignorance and stupidity rule supreme in these Muslim countries.  With Islam interfering it is impossible to have any civilized exchange of ideas. Trying to reason with them is the same as trying to be friendly with a rabid pitbull.

Let them kill themselves, let's not interfere. Enough American blood and money have been wasted with these peoples.

Makrem KH
Makrem KH

dear lucia matias 

 im sorry if i have no time for u but in some words i will spend it for u sweety ;before u talk about anything u should have a proper idea far from racialism or religious attachment so if u want to talk about civ go back to the history nd if u want to talk about religion go learn the koran and if u want to talk about blood get a look on ur tv. but if u want to fuck of start by ur self nd with all my respect fuck u bitch 

FouedMhedhbi
FouedMhedhbi

It is not fair !  Islam is completely different ! I advise you to learn more about Islam and then write about it  !   

FouedMhedhbi
FouedMhedhbi

I've learned from Islam not to insult others !! I advise you to know more about Islam and then you have the right to speak about it ! 

Myriem Derouiche
Myriem Derouiche

@facebook-100003264870238:disqus : what you are saying is pure barbarism , total ignorance and bewilderment !! when you talk about Muslims and Islam talk properly , and select your words or shut your mouth !! you are such an empty-headed , don't insult others if your ignorance prevents you from respecting their religious beliefs !!! 

Let your hatred and bitter feelings kill no one but you !! shame On you .

Susie Ricca
Susie Ricca

barbarism ? so when protestants and catholics kill each other in Ireland, what do u call this ? Civiliation, ROFL!!! You seem to be another media brainwashed one LOL, please go and make ur own researches before speaking about these countries,  a country like Egypt has 4000 years of history unlike ur Bresil, or before I forget , may be u should focus on the crimes in ur country  and the cannabis traffic!! 

Tausog51
Tausog51

I agree with you. The trouble is your American State Department and politicians , analyzed and made decisions with ulterior interest. Against better advice, the US invaded Iraq, and the result is the destabilization of the Mixdle East. Libya is now destabilize because with US and NATO firepower , Khadafi was ousted. The US right now is in Saudi Arabia, supposedly an ally and friend of the Saudis, but did any among the Suadis Monarch announced and pleaded to stop attack on the various embassies of the West.?

The better ways to deal with the radical Muslims is to leave them among themselves fighting among themselves. If Iran appeared to be stubborn and really heading to produce nuclear bomb, then tell Iran, we are fed up with you. It is up to your Arab neighbors and Israel solve this issue.

Stella Ramirez
Stella Ramirez

I guess your way of thinking that others are "barbarians" is in itself antisemitic and pure "barbarism" . If you dont understand others why judge them?...i guess it is pure ignorance and stupidity....madam!  if you wanna be friendly with others dont send them bombs, kill their children and offend their faiths...thats what we call "stupid pitbull" trying to befriend a rabbit...wow! dear madam you are an angel..."let them kill themselves"??? SHAME ON YOU

oldprofessor
oldprofessor

How do you stop them from killing one another without killing them?  They are going to kill one another.  And in a culture where a friend of my enemy is my enemy too....we will not be able to sit on a fence and watch the slaughter......besides we will need to peddle our wares.